So, news came this morning that Juan Williams, the news analyst on NPR, was fired for some comments he made on Fox's The O'Reilly Factor. As Yahoo's "The Upshot" blog reported (they have the full video, which you might want to watch), here are the precise comments that got Williams fired:
"I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot," Williams continued. "You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."Okay, first of all, granted it was an insensitive comment, but was it a firing offense? I absolutely abhor anti-Muslim bigotry, I have spoken of my special cultural connection to the Muslim cab driver who was stabbed in New York, and I have no earthly idea why Juan Williams goes on Fox. I don't like the comment he made - they were insensitive. But the fact of the matter is that Juan Williams was offering his opinion, and said something that is not him acting on his fears, but just having them. It's an irrational fear, but it's one many people have. In this country, we do not try to regulate people's thoughts but their actions. Williams did not say that he'd complain to airline security if someone is wearing Muslim garb and try to have them removed from the plane.
Not every insensitive comment is worth firing someone. Williams' comment, inappropriate as it may have been, was not inflammatory or inciting any violence. He did not accuse Muslims as a group of anything, and he didn't assign to Muslims as a whole any characteristics, the way Bill O'Reilly did by saying "Muslims killed us on 9-11." He expressed a nervousness - which is a state of mind, not a state of action. Whatever else it is, it should not be an offense that warrants one losing their job in this country.
Many on the left have defended this firing by comparing what Williams said to this following scenario: If someone saw a black person dressed in thuggish outfit and a baseball cap walking down the street, and they got afraid of getting mugged, wouldn't they be racist? To that let me say that it's oversimplifying the subject. We constantly judge people we don't know by their outside appearance. Try walking down a deserted ally at midnight and tell me you wouldn't be scared and speed up a little bit if you saw a figure in hoods following you - I don't even care or have to know the race of the person following.
If you are protesting Wall Street greed in front of a bank's headquarters, and people (especially white men) from the building come out in blue suits, tell me there won't even be a shed of thought in your mind that they are the bank management (even though you don't actually know that to be true), the subject of your anger. Should your employer fire you if you simply express in public that you thought the people in blue suit were members of the bank management? Tell me that as a gay man of color, I can walk into a countryside diner in Alabama with a bunch of patrons with guns in their holsters holding hands with my boyfriend and not have to be nervous. Hey, it's legal for them to carry and gun and by far, the vast majority of even southern conservative white gun-owners would shoot two gay men of color. But is it wrong for me to be nervous?
Even Whoopi Goldberg and other women on ABC's The View thought that the firing was unwarranted. In fact, I think everyone should watch this segment from The View as they articulate what I have been trying to say much better than I can say it:
I agree with Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg. As Behar said, realistically, if someone was going to blow up the plane, they wouldn't show up in full Muslim garb to do so. But that also tells you why - that kind of clothing automatically generates extra suspicion. Why? Because of exactly the sentiment Williams articulated. And I hate to admit it, but Patricia Heaton is also right when she says Williams would not have gotten fired if he had instead said that he gets nervous around a group of tea-partiers. As Whoopi Goldberg said, firing Williams for this comment is "kind of ridiculous", and NPR should rectify the situation and hire him back.
Huffington Post blogger Jacob Heilbrunn agrees and makes the point succinctly in his piece, In Defense of Juan Williams:
Juan Williams made a foolish and silly comment to Bill O'Reilly about Muslims the other day. But does it amount to a firing offense? No way. National Public Radio has badly blundered in sacking Williams. [...] The honorable thing would have been for Williams to apologize and for NPR to have moved on. Now it's created a furor and turned Williams into a martyr. Williams will survive his firing. The real loser isn't Williams, but NPR.